Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Center for Strategic & International Studies
Washington, D.C.
December 13, 2001

MR. NIKITIN: One more time, good day, and thank you for coming. The topic I'm going to discuss today has been discussed very actively in Russia . There've been jokes going around in terms of this, because President Putin is surrounded by many people who are former generals, former military, and when asked how they would build civil society, they call everybody to attention, tell them to get into rows, and they say "Comrade General, we have a civil society."

And for the first time in Russian history, on the 21st and 22nd of November, there was a meeting of representatives of civil society organizations and the authorities. It was done in the Kremlin. And a few statistics in Russia today from the Ministry of Justice. We found out there are over 350,000 registered NGOs and 90,000 active NGOs. And over 3,453 representatives of NGOs traveled to Moscow representing all various regions of Russia. Those people represented many different NGOs. Twenty percent of them, approximately, represented environmental and human rights NGOs.

And the process of preparation for this meeting actually began on the 12th of June of this year after President Putin met with 12 representatives of NGOs. And at that meeting on the 12th, apparently there were a number of people called to meet with Mr. Putin that were deemed to be incapable of saying anything bad about the president. And, nevertheless, they said it is necessary for us to conduct some sort of a convention, and afterwards the convention became actually a forum.

And the first meeting that was conducted at this not-so-small event was designed to be a political show where representatives of civil society would express a unified view in support of the president. And the first committee worked in this direction. In addition to that, there were committees set up in all different regions who were also electing candidates that would attend.

But the organizers of this forum, approximately in September, actually approached environmental NGOs and human rights NGOs, in particular Memorial and the Helsinki group based in Moscow. They asked them to participate in this conference. And these organizations actually established some conditions for their participation. Firstly, the itinerary or the agenda would not be that as it had previously been designed, and a few other conditions as well, which I will discuss further. And these other conditions included that one-third of the composition of committees should remain as it was earlier, the people who had worked for these committees. One-third of the committees should be made up of the representatives of human rights and the environmental organizations; and one-third of the committees should be made up of representatives of the authority; in other words, the administration of President Putin.

And in addition to that, one other demand they had was that the people who come to Moscow would not be chosen by the local authorities, but, instead, by people that were nominated and put forward by the society itself, that these are people who actually wanted to be there, and they wanted to meet with the authorities. And the organizers of this forum had nothing left to do but to agree, because otherwise it would look very funny, and it would have nothing but a negative connotation.

And so I'll jump forward a little bit just to say that even though this forum was prepared in June, by the time it actually was proceeding in November, none of the organizers of the forum, none of the representatives of the NGOs, none of the representatives of the media had any idea -- they had no idea of what was going to happen, because, according to our thinking, to have such a grandiose Russian societal meeting that included more than 5,000 people, it would be something that would require at least a year's worth of preparation so that it actually would proceed and actually come up with some sort of a result, a meaningful result.

Nevertheless, Ludmila Alekseyevna opened the conference on the 21st of November. She is the Moscow representative of the Helsinki Group. And this hall, which the capacity is 5,000 people, was completely full, and on the stage it was not a presidium. There were people who were going to be participating in the plenary sessions, and Ludmila Alekseyevna said that even though this hall was one in which we had party conventions conducted and maybe that spirit is there. This is not a party. This is not a party convention.

And for this reason she said that this would not be a presidium. There would be no resolutions, there would be no banquets, and the budget of this forum would be completely transparent so that everybody could see where the money went, how it was spent, and approximately $1.5 million was spent on the forum. And also, as a condition for the opening of this forum, was that it would not play the Russian national anthem. And so the organizers agreed to this since they didn't want to have any disputes right from the start to see who would stand for the anthem, which would not stand for the anthem. And President Putin entered the hall after it got started. Everybody stood up to greet the head of the government. But you could say there were no enthusiastic outbursts.

And after Ludmila Alekseyevna made her initial comments, she asked Mr. Putin to make his comments. President Putin, in my view, read a very proper and a very sober speech, which was written for him. And he said that the cooperation that the government had arrived at in this forum, this joint activity, came from a need for dialogue and cooperation with civil society and its representatives. And he continued on to say that it's absolutely unproductive, and even possibly dangerous, for civil society to be established from the top down. He said that civil society needs to be independent, have its own grassroots so that it can breathe the air freely. And he said that before the authorities there's just one task, one goal, which is to establish the best conditions possible for the establishment of civil society.

And these more or less were the main thoughts of President Putin, and, of course, it's impossible to disagree with it. But the most important thing is that the words will actually correspond with the actions of the government. As far as we understand, to enable civil society, or provide the conditions for the development of civil society, there has to be, indeed, a real separation of powers. There has to be a parliament which is independent of the president or the executive branch. There has to be a media that cannot be dictated to by various different power structures, and there must be a non-criminal branch of authority, which, unfortunately, in Russia today there isn't one.

I have to say that the administration made certain to protect the president from hearing any sort of negative comments, toward him, or toward the presidential authority. And with Ludmila Alekseyevna said that before the forum a gentleman approached her representing the president's administration and asked that she show a list of the speakers and in what order they will be making the presentations. And he, in turn, looked to her and said, you know, this is not right. Here you have people representing civil society and then the authorities, we need to have the authorities speak first, and then have the representatives of civil society.

And so she responded by saying that the committee had actually decided upon the order in which the speakers would make their presentations, and the head of protocol looked at the list and said, okay, fine, let's just keep it this way. But, in fact, it turned out that the president was only in the hall for approximately an hour. And those people that made their presentations during that period are people that he hears every single day. The people who spoke there were speakers, Mr. Seleznev, Mr. Pavlovsky. From the constitutional court, we had Pamfilova. And at the end of their presentations, President Putin said, I'm sorry I have a lot of routine work that I have to do, it's a daily routine, and I can't stay with you much longer, and he left. My impression was such that the president could not not attend this conference. But he had some sort of interest, some sort of activity. And I was sitting fairly close and I can say that I didn't see any particular interest on his face.

And what did those people in the hall do while the president was there? They were writing notes to each other with all sorts of requests that they were trying to pass up to the president. And so at one fine moment, when this mountain of notes almost got to the point where it blocked the view of the president, an assistant came up and gathered up all the notes. In Russian this is called making an appeal to the czar, when people used to get down on their knees in front of the czar and ask him for a favor.

And after the president left there were representatives from various civil society organizations speaking. Nobody said a particularly harsh word about the president. It wasn't that different from things that I would say, but it appeared that they even didn't want to risk the possibility that the president might be there in the presence of these people. And the plenary session concluded before lunch, and then we broke up into our smaller groups. All the people who came to this conference broke up into smaller groups for the remainder of that day and the following day. They would break them into groups on thematic and specific subject matter. All in all, there were 21 different topics being discussed.

I won't go down the whole list of all these different discussions and meetings that were going on, but they did include things like national security, national policy, social policies, military reform, media, environment, and at all of these different meetings there were supposed to be representatives, whether they were ministers, but there were supposed to be representatives of the authorities, whether there were individual ministers there or not. And, of course, they did discuss some of the difficult questions, whether it was Chechnya, refugees or immigration. These were discussed.

And the conditions of the work at this forum were extremely difficult, because all of the discussions, all of the meeting groups were broken up and dispersed throughout all of Moscow. I don't know how many of you are familiar with Moscow, but they would have one meeting at the university, another meeting would be in the Kremlin, another would be in a museum somewhere or else on the other side of town. And virtually everybody who came to the conference could only attend one of these breakout sessions, one of these discussions and meet with anybody from the authority. This was described as a base for negotiations. Or they could just go and meet with their colleagues who represented other NGOs.

And the next day these discussions were broken into roundtables. There were approximately seven roundtable sessions. But afterwards representatives from these roundtables would break out and go to individual ministries where they would discuss something with individual bureaucrats. And we formulated the main task, which was to agree to some sort of terms by which civil society organizations could work jointly with the government to at least create a base for these negotiations.

And so after the forum the main question that was asked, was asked to me individually was, well, did you agree to anything, and what did you agree to? And I explained that two days is not enough to be able to agree, to come up with any sort of agreements. You can't agree to anything. And I said that from the start it's very possible that people were not prepared to conduct negotiations or discussions at this particular level.

And at one of the negotiating bases there were ministries that didn't want to have any discussions with us whatsoever, and one that I happened to be at, it was called the military-industrial complex and environmental protection. There the ministries representing environmental protection had their people, the MinAtom, the Ministry of Atomic Energy, and the Ministry of National Resources was there as well. And they said they had nothing to discuss with us.

And I realized that the best negotiating table for these types of discussions with these ministries is at a judge's table. And I would have to say that the presidential team that prepared these negotiating tables -- and it was their call -- did actually provide some sort of benefit, and quite a bit of themselves. For example, at the discussion of national security and foreign policy, the people who prepared these meetings had ample opportunity to speak one-on-one with the individuals who are actually involved and responsible for national security policy.

The level of trust between the authorities and organizations representing civil society, civil society organizations, is very, very low. I spoke with the people who were at the table discussing Chechnya, and I asked them, "Did you agree? Were you able to come to any sort of agreements?" And they said absolutely nothing. And everybody said that this was a very argumentative meeting. People went there much less with the idea of trust than they did with the idea of hope, that maybe we'll actually be able to come to terms with something. Maybe. Who knows. Something might occur where we'll actually be able to come to some sort of terms. And so the general conclusion was that nothing was agreed to.

And I understand that everybody actually came out of these meetings -- human rights activists, environmentalists came out and breathed a deep sigh of relief, because, they said, nothing bad happened. They said we didn't establish a ministry of civil society; there was no government representation of civil society, so we didn't do anything bad. And already now following the processes that came about as a result of this conference, of this forum, and we see that people are already trying to establish different structures and mechanisms with which they can work with the government following all these 21 directions of the breakout groups and the topics we were discussing; for example, the environment and health. There is an attempt to try and establish some sort of structure or mechanism by which they can have representation with the government, or even representation in the government. But we could see that although there was no general structure established, at least we can say there were individual structures established. And I would say that it probably is a little bit premature to give any sort of a final grade or conclusion as to the success of this.

And at the conclusion of the forum, Premier Kasyanov was there. There were 21 people who were making presentations. They had three minutes to represent the results of these different breakout groups that they had. And, personally, I didn't hear any concrete or hopeful results as to having produced any sort of immediate agreements. There's a possibility that there can be success and work done in the future. But I would have to say that the conference ended on such a note that it would almost be naive to think that after two days we could come up with some sort of an agreement.

Back to the Top    Next Article